As more than a quarter of South Carolina's 130 court reporter positions remain vacant, people in the profession say officials aren't doing enough to tackle the shortage that's costing the state time and money.
Without enough reporters, courtrooms across the state can see last-minute cancellations of proceedings that range from child custody cases to murder trials.
Rescheduled hearings can mean additional expenses for litigants, according to a Family Court judge who said she and others on the bench are upset by how they say the state has failed to recruit and hire reporters.
The S.C. Court Administration supervises the trained stenographers who transcribe verbatim records of Circuit and Family Court proceedings. A wave of retirements and a lack of training at state technical colleges has created the shortage, the office says.
The judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, disagrees with that explanation.
"This whole shortage has been a creation of the court system. It's a total disruption. ... Court reporters are trying to apply and not getting hired."
Certified, experienced reporters who have applied for positions over the past year say they either never heard back from Court Administration or were not selected for an interview.
"There's people out there that would love to have a job with benefits. I’m one of them," said Karen Chambers, a freelance reporter in Florida who applied for a position in Family Court a year ago.
Chambers said Court Administration offered her an interview but then went silent when she attempted over several months to arrange a date.
"I started to get a sense that maybe there was ... something going on," she said. "There were so many ads for the position but yet they were not hiring."
Since the beginning of 2015, the state has hired 12 of 28 applicants who met the minimum qualifications, according to information provided via a Freedom of Information Act request. The first hire of the year started on the job this month, and an offer has been extended to one other candidate.
Tonnya Kohn, interim director for Court Administration, said qualified applicants have turned down job offers because they decided not to relocate or said the salary — listed at $40,538 for a position in Family Court and $46,777 for Circuit Court — didn't meet their demands.
But that wasn't the case for one freelance reporter who applied in January, hoping for a steady paycheck to support her son's college tuition. She said she hasn't heard from the state since confirming her application was received. The woman, who asked not to be identified in case she's still in the running for the job, connected with other applicants in the same position through a Facebook group.
"That's when they started coming out of the woodwork," the woman said. "I'm just totally baffled. I'm so qualified."
'We've heard talk'
To address the shortage, the state in January launched a pilot digital recording program in five courtrooms in Dorchester, Richland, Sumter, Anderson and Greenville counties. The Judicial Department plans to expand the technology to at least five more courtrooms by the end of the year.
Under the program, a monitor oversees the recording using headphones and a computer screen. Copies of the recordings are saved. The monitor also annotates the record and marks exhibits, Kohn said.
Court clerks have said the technology is being reserved for routine hearings. Reporters are still being used to capture trials and more complex proceedings, officials said. Kohn said the digital recording program helps avoid delaying court hearings until open reporter positions are filled.
"The Judicial Branch does not intend to eliminate any court reporter positions and is actively working to fill vacancies with qualified court reporters," she said in a letter written in response to The Post and Courier's Freedom of Information request.
Court Administration insists that all applications are processed and every applicant who meets minimum requirements is considered.
Reporters who work for the state must be nationally certified or have a degree in court reporting from an accredited school or court reporting institution. At least four years experience is necessary.
Wanda Rowe, a Circuit Court reporter who works primarily in Beaufort County, said the lack of reporters has caused her to juggle scheduling conflicts and feel more stress on the job. She said morale is low among her colleagues who wonder why the state hasn't ramped up recruiting efforts and who also worry about the accuracy of digital recordings.
"Everyone's asking these questions," Rowe said. "We’ve heard talk that installing the machines is a way to cut costs. But is that where you want to cut costs? The official records, the transcripts, the very documents appeals are based on?"
'I moved on'
South Carolina court reporters' annual salaries average about $48,500, according to federal data from 2017, but Robin Herrera said she resorted to freelance work after learning that the state could only pay her around $40,000 — the same as a court reporter "fresh out of school."
Herrera worked for the state for 10 years until 2007. She then worked in California before recently moving back to South Carolina with a list of certifications.
"I had heard that they had a lot of openings and I thought they would just open up my personnel file and say, 'Oh yeah, come on. We need reporters. We need you,'" she said.
Herrera said she was told the state was hiring for Family Court, not Circuit Court, where she wanted to land a job because there are more opportunities to earn money from transcripts. The state also couldn't meet her salary request.
"People from all over the country want to move to South Carolina," Herrera said. "There's no reason that South Carolina couldn't get qualified court reporters to work in state court if they would up the pay."
Lena Baggett said she didn't dwell when her application for a Family Court position in July went unanswered.
At the time, she was a little less than a year shy of meeting the state's requirement of four years experience, but a state-employed court reporter had encouraged her to apply anyway because the court system was in dire need.
"I never heard a word," said Baggett, who went to work in Georgia. "I moved on. I don't have time."